In the 1970s you would have been hard pressed to avoid the comedic genius of Ronnie Barker. Most television watchers will know of him as one half The Two Ronnies, which ran on BBC television for many years (they are about to record a new series, by the way), as well as several other successful comedy shows such as Open All Hours, where he played the stuttering tight-wad corner shop owner, Arkwright, and Porridge where he played serial-offender Norman Fletcher serving another five-year stint in Slade Prison. Although not penned by Barker, much of the show’s success can be attributed to him.
Written by Dick Clemet and Ian Le Franais, the regular prisoners include Fletcher’s novice-crim cellmate, Lenny Godber (Richard Beckinsale), and the father/son relationship between these two is but one of the cornerstones on which the scenarios are based. As you would expect there are the usual goings-on in prison that provide ample opportunities for laughs, including prisoner squabbles, petty theft, talk of escape, cat and mouse games with the wardens, prison visits and potential life on the outside.
This series is a little funnier than the first that in itself was very enjoyable. The production values are just as good, but the contrast in quality between location filming and studio taping is still quite obvious.
The two main foils for Fletcher are the wardens Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) and Mr. MacKay (Fulton MacKay). Barrowclough is the kind-hearted screw who feels the men are there to pay their debt to society, but at the same time learn from the experience so that it might enrich their lives when they are released. He is easily played by Fletcher, and would no doubt be chewed up and spat out in a real prison. MacKay on the other hand is the hard-nosed, kick-arse screw who shows nothing but contempt for his charges and spends most of his time trying to catch Fletcher in the middle of one of his scams.
The lead actors work well, and there is good chemistry between them. There are plenty of laughs and some very amusing and quite clever storylines. Barker fans will already have decided that this release is for them.
Episode 1: Just Desserts. Fletcher has had a tin of stolen pineapple chunks nicked and he is not happy. Fancy, crims stealing from crims! Godber attempts to do Fletcher and provide him with another, but his plan backfires
Episode 2: Heartbreak Hotel. Godber receives a “Dear John” letter from his girl and reacts badly. Fletcher does the ‘fatherly’ thing and tries to ease him through the pain, until he realises that Godber has fallen for his also recently jilted daughter, Ingrid.
Episode 3: Disturbing the Peace. Mr. Barrowclough is to be reassigned to a minimum-security prison. Mr MacKay is thought to have left, but his replacement is even worse. The prisoners stage a riot to humiliate the new screw and at the same time prove Barrowclough's worth to Slade as a peacekeeper and mediator.
Episode 4: No Peace for the Wicked. With most of the prison population off doing Saturday afternoon sport, Fletcher decides to make the most of the peace and quiet but is visited by a succession of intruders. He finally snaps and throws the prison Chaplain over the railing into the safety net.
Episode 5: Happy Release. Fletcher has broken his foot and is enjoying the luxury of decent meals and a lie in at the prison hospital, but MacKay is not impressed. His fellow ward-mates are the elderly Blanco and the irritating creep, Norris. Blanco and Fletch scheme to make Norris’ imminent release a moment to remember.
Episode 6: The Harder They Fall: Godber is chosen to compete in the inter-wing boxing match, and Fletch is roped in by prison heavy, Grouty, to rig the fight and get Godber to take a dive. He is ‘persuaded’ by Grouty’s minders, but finds himself in a fix when he learns Godber has already agreed to take a dice for Grouty’s main rival, Billy Moffatt.
Like the first series, the second looks mostly good, especially the in-studio footage that is instantly distinguishable from the filmed location stuff. It is far sharper, almost grain free, contains almost nothing in the way of artefacts and has solid and well-rendered colouring and black levels, with little interference from noise and good shadow detail. There is some minor aliasing and shimmer, but nothing too distracting and in all it's generally very good.
By contrast, the filmed footage, while acceptable, displays mild evidence of all those things listed above, and has particularly poor shadow detail. The two are quite distinct.
The aspect ratio is the television standard full frame and the layer change is placed discretely between episodes.